I was reading chanson’s post, How I became an atheist, and realised something pretty obvious – when someone starts to question their religion, they usually start with a religious approach to finding truth. Chanson tried to receive a “testimony” (in the Mormon sense). When I started doubting my Christian faith, I prayed for God to reveal himself in a way that I’d understand it. Many people with doubts first turn to the Bible, or their pastor/priest/minister/elder.
No Christian – even a newly doubting Christian – is going to start by reading The God Delusion, or go looking for contradictions in the Bible, or stop going to church just to see what happens. Many people believe that exposing themselves to different opinions is sinful in itself (see my post on “spiritual pornography“); most people at least feel uncomfortable doing so. It seems like the first step in deconversion is often a spiritual one, and only goes elsewhere when the spiritual steps don’t seem to lead anywhere.
So, I decided to come up with a list of things that I think would encourage people to start questioning their faith, but that are uncontroversial things for a Christian to do, and that many are already doing. All of them were suggested or encouraged by Christians when I was a Christian; I did the first and third, and dabbled in the fourth. (Some or all of them probably apply to other religions as well, but I’m most familiar with Christianity.)
Yes, this is my evil manipulative atheist way of getting people to do things that might eventually undermine their faith. I’m not trying to hide that. But each of these suggestions has the advantage that, if I’m wrong and your beliefs are correct, then it will only help your faith. In that case, the egg will be entirely on my face.
1. Read the Bible.
Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived. – Isaac Asimov
Honestly. Read the Bible, and take it seriously. Don’t just skim over stories that you know well (e.g. Abraham going to sacrifice Isaac, Genesis 22), but actually read what happened. Read the Old Testament – especially at the Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy), Joshua, Job, Ecclesiastes… well, whatever you want really. Read two or more gospels in parallel and compare them, and compare that to the first chapter of Acts and the various mentions of Jesus in the epistles. When the New Testament mentions an Old Testament prophecy, look it up and read it in context. Read Galatians and James back-to-back.
Just one suggestion – read it as a narrative, as you would read any other book. All I mean by this is that you shouldn’t stand so far back that you read it too broadly and don’t see the story (you read about the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years, and all you see is “there are consequences to not having faith”); and you shouldn’t stand so close that you can’t see the forest for the trees (you research the original Greek usage of the word “hate” in Luke 14:26 but ignore the rest of the chapter). Different people (and different churches) have a tendency to go to either or both of these extremes, and while they might add to your understanding, you really should read it as a straightforward narrative as well. You might learn something new.
2. Keep a prayer diary.
Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith. – Matthew 21:21-22
As a Christian, I remember many people suggesting that a good way to build your trust in God was to keep a prayer diary – in other words, write down everything you pray for, and look back over it periodically to see what has been answered. The idea, of course, was that when your faith weakens you sometimes find it hard to remember how you’ve been blessed, and it helps to have something concrete to remind you.
I never did it. I wonder sometimes whether I would have become an atheist earlier if I had – it seems like the perfect way to get around confirmation bias that would otherwise lead people to believe that all their prayers have been answered, when in fact very few have, and those can be explained by chance.
In fact, this is a perfect thing to try; if it turns out that all your prayers are answered, then all it will do is strengthen your faith. Get an exercise book, and write down the things that you’re praying for; then look back over them periodically to see what has happened.
Be honest. Don’t put too much weight on things that would have happened in due course anyway (”help me recover from this cold”), or that happened through your effort (”help me pass this exam”). Try to guess the odds that it will happen by chance without you praying for it (”let it be sunny on Saturday” might be 50%). Pay particular attention to things that are completely out of your control, and that would probably not happen without some kind of intervention.
3. Read about church history.
I think it’s important for Christians to know about the history of their own religion. Besides, it’s interesting. What makes it tricky is that it’s very difficult to know which sources of information are biased – many accounts of Christian history are biased heavily towards Christianity, and many are biased heavily against it. It often helps to read opposing viewpoints. You can go as deep as you want. I’ve linked to a random selection of relevant Wikipedia pages – you wouldn’t want trust it with your life, but I’ve generally found that Wikipedia’s contributors have conflicting biases that tend to cancel each other out. It’s probably okay to use it as a starting point.
Since the Bible is such a central part of many modern Christians’ beliefs, it’s useful to know something about where it came from. The history of the Biblical canon – which books and letters came to be considered part of “The Bible” – is interesting, and doesn’t really start to settle down until about the fourth century AD. Also look at the transmission of the text, how it’s pieced together from manuscripts and translated. Another interesting thread to follow is the variety of early Christian “heresies“, like Gnosticism (see also Valentinius), adoptionism, and the teachings of Marcion and Arius; and how they were dealt with in, for example, the Council of Nicaea.
If you’ve ever heard anyone say that there are lots of references to Jesus in non-Christian writings in the first and second centuries AD, go and find them. (You’ll probably want to start with Josephus.) If you’ve ever heard anyone say that all the apostles (except John) were martyred for their faith, find out where that history comes from.
That’s just a brief and random selection. Don’t worry too about the Middle Ages, the Crusades and such for now. Christians are, and should be, as eager as anyone to distance themselves from such behaviour.
4. Ask other people about their doubts.
If nothing else, this one could turn you into a great counsellor.
At my old church, we used to do a thing at some of our meetings called “good news sharing”. (This was mainly pre-crisis ICOC – uh, if you don’t know what that means, read the first paragraph of this post.) Basically, anyone could talk about something that had happened that they felt showed God at work. Often this would have something to do with their evangelistic efforts, but it could be other stuff – finding a new job, recovering from an illness, something generous that someone else in the church did, or whatever. After a few rounds of this, it was easy to come away with the impression that God was doing wonderful things.
The problem with this – as we realised post-crisis – was that it gave a very biased view of what was happening in the group. There was no “bad news sharing” or “indifferent news sharing”. It was always possible that there were only a handful of positive stories in a group of mostly miserable people, but because those positive stories were the ones that were discussed publicly, everyone got the impression that God was blessing the group left right and centre. In the context of our church, this was significant because having your prayers answered was a sign that you were on the right spiritual track, that your desires were godly.
There may not be an example as blatant as this in every church, but there’s a general principle here. In a community where faith is considered to be a virtue, people with stronger faith will be visible and vocal, while people with weaker faith will only talk about it privately, if at all.
It’s been my general experience (and this is just my experience, yours may be different) that, for every person who’s confident that their prayers are being heard and answered, there are maybe half a dozen who feel like they’re talking to themselves when they pray. But, of course, the one confident Christian is the most likely to talk about it, and to be encouraged to talk about it. The half a dozen will tend to stay quiet. So to a casual observer, it seems like the group’s prayer life is all positive. More importantly, it also seems that way to everyone in the group, even those who don’t feel it themselves. Each of the half a dozen will think that they’re the only one who doesn’t get it, so they’ll just try to sort it out themselves. They might even exaggerate their own experiences to try to meet others’, and their own, expectations.
A similar thing happens with beliefs. To pick a random example, I’d guess that most Christians, at some time or another, have difficulty with the problem of suffering (”if God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?”). But most of the time, they’ll keep it to themselves. And if someone they trust or someone in authority mentions the issue and makes it clear that it hasn’t affected their faith, then that’s often enough to convince people that there is a resolution to the problem, even if they don’t know or understand it themselves. They might still have doubts, but they don’t see anyone else expressing those same doubts, so it seems like a minor issue.
Now we get to the obvious suggestion. The only way you’ll ever find out how the average Christian really feels about their faith is to ask them. Talk to people you trust to be honest with you. Of course, I could be completely wrong – maybe everyone you talk to will quite honestly have everything worked out, and be completely doubt-free; in that case, it can only help your own faith. And even if people do have issues, it can only help them to talk about it and try to reach a resolution. The point is that you’ll never know unless you talk to people.
Also, be honest about your own doubts (if you have any – if not, well, get yourself tested for non-human DNA). You might find that other people have had the same thoughts. Or someone else might have the answer to one of your problems.
Okay, if I keep talking like this I’m going to start thinking I’m an amateur psychiatrist. I hate people who do that. So that’s all. If anyone actually decides to do anything based on this post, leave a comment so I can see how it goes.2 comments